Acknowledge Negative Wiring
Understanding how the mind works and what we can do to help our mind operate at its best can have a strong impact on our happiness. How we think impacts how we feel; and how we feel impacts how we behave.
Most of us remember negative experiences more than we remember positive ones.
Think about a recent customer service experience that you had. The one that comes up for me is my last airline trip. I was super excited to go to London for my first in-person conference since COVID. Two hours before my flight the airline canceled it! Seriously? UGH! So frustrating! My first thought was, “I knew this was going to happen!” I have had negative experiences with this airline in the past so I was anticipating a negative experience with them in the present. Confirmation!
The reason we have a tendency to remember more negative experiences because we have a negativity bias. Our nervous system has evolved for about 6 million years and the brain is designed to keep us alive not make us happy. We attend to; learn from and remember negative information far more than we do positive information. From an evolutionary standpoint, our ancestors were concerned about predators, starvation, and procreation.
So back in the day, if one of our ancestors was walking through the desert, looking for food, and they came upon a bush and saw the leaves rustling; there were two kinds of mistakes they could make. 1) thinking there was a predator (like a tiger) in the bush when there wasn’t one or; 2) thinking there was no tiger when there was one. It is much better to make mistake #1. Humans learned early on that not anticipating threats can be a deadly. The default setting of the brain is to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. It ultimately helps us survive but is not so helpful when we want to increase our happiness.
The amygdala is the part of our brain that is activated when we detect these negative experiences. The amygdala uses many of its neurons to look for bad news, so it can sound the alarm bell and send information to the other parts of the body to take action. Experiences of danger, pain, upset feelings, and even hunger all activate the sympathetic part of our nervous system, the fight, flight or freeze response.
This is our body’s natural way to help us stay alert and recall all the bad things that COULD happen. These negative experiences are quickly stored in our memory. It helps us minimize dangerous and painful situations going forward. However, we have to teach ourselves to consider whether these alarm bells, internal and external, are valid. Notice how your brain is wired to make you afraid. Ask yourself, Is this a real threat? Or a perceived threat? Am I taking into consideration all of the pieces of data? Am I considering all the possible outcomes including the positive outcomes?
Are these thoughts real or imagined?
Let’s talk a little bit more about our thoughts. We as humans are meaning-making machines. On average we have about 60,000 thoughts a day and I’ve read that about 80% of these thoughts are negative. Our thoughts impact our feelings; our feelings impact our behavior.
So for a second imagine a chalkboard in front of you….. that black, old-fashioned chalkboard that some of you had in school when you were a child. I remember how it felt to go up to the front of the classroom and write something on the board using that white chalk and using the eraser. I remember the sound and the feel. Imagine I’m standing up there in front of that classroom and I take my fingernails and I reach up to the chalkboard, and I scratch all the way down the chalkboard. Ouch! What happens in your body when you imagine me scratching the chalkboard? Yeah, you probably cringed or felt an awful feeling in your body. The nervous system doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality. For example, if you are thinking an anxious thought or experiencing an anxious situation your body will have a similar experience. Isn’t that amazing that our body can feel an intense feeling even when it is a thought in our imagination?
Now that we know: 1) we have a tendency to have negative thoughts and 2) that our body responds to thoughts like they are real and 3) we have feelings as a result of these thoughts. See how easily we get caught up in this negative mindset? So what can we do about it? The first step is being aware of this and seeing how this plays out in your own life.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” – Epictetus
A common tenet of Stoicism that heavily influenced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy states that It is not the events in our lives that upset us, it is how we think about the events in our lives that upset us. Humans have been evaluating the impact our thoughts have on us for centuries. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive theory, coined the term cognitive distortions. Simply put, cognitive distortions are a negative outlook on reality. This is one of the most common pitfalls that can negatively impact our happiness. Click here for a list of cognitive distortions. Take a look at the list and pick one that you see yourself doing frequently. For me, I can get caught up in jumping to conclusions.
Once you notice these cognitive distortions, write them down, label them, and challenge them. Here is an example of how to challenge your thoughts.
Practice challenging your thoughts
Think about a situation that you had to deal with that was upsetting. For me, I planned to go to dinner with a friend recently and she canceled at the last minute because she wanted to see another friend. I was really upset. I found myself really bothered by this situation. After I had a small meltdown :)……Here is what I did to help myself deal with the situation.
What is my thought: I’m not important to her and she never prioritizes me.
What is my cognitive distortion?
Overgeneralization. I take isolated situations and generalize them widely. I use words such as “always” and “never”.
Personalizing. I assume that the behaviors of others and external events are directed to or about me without considering other plausible explanations.
Challenge the thought:
I ask myself three questions.
1) Is this thought helpful? I’m not important and she never prioritizes me. Is that helpful to say to myself? Not so much.
2) Is this thought true? Is it true that I’m unimportant to her and she never prioritizes me? Well honestly in the moment it felt true but when I reflected on it, I have a long history with this friend and there have been instances when I have felt important and like I am a priority. It is not true.
3) What is an alternative explanation (that IS helpful and true)? What is an alternative reason for her canceling on me at the last minute? It could be that she over-schedules herself and doesn’t plan accordingly. Then ask the questions again. Is it helpful? Is it true? Yes and Yes!
Being aware of our distorted thinking and challenging our thoughts can help us get out of negative mindsets that can rob us of our happiness. And learning how to appreciate our propensity to see the threats in our relationships and our life circumstances helps us avoid future pitfalls by seeing the whole story – the risks AND the benefits helps our brains learn to have balance. When we are balanced we are more likely to let some sunshine in! I’m not going to lie, it takes A LOT of practice to manage these thoughts! But it’s worth it.
Next time I’ll cover the third research finding, how relationships impact our happiness.
Dr. Lee LeGrice is a psychotherapist in Denver, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas. In her practice, she focuses on two main areas: relationships and anxiety. A specialty of hers is helping people create safe, secure, loving relationships.
Let’s face it, relationships are challenging! Healthy relationships don’t just happen, they take work! She feels passionate about putting attachment theory into practice for herself and her clients. And she wants the same for you.